US Counterterror Chief: Al-Qaida Now on the Ropes
On a steady slide. On the ropes. Taking shots to the body and head.
That’s how White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan described al-Qaida on Wednesday as he offered the first on-record confirmation that al-Qaida’s latest second-in-command was killed last week in Pakistan — roughly four months after Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden there.
In an Associated Press interview, Brennan said the death of Atiyah Abd al-Rahman in Pakistan’s tribal areas last week was a “huge blow” to the group, damaging the network and keeping al-Qaida’s leadership too busy trying to hide to plot new attacks. Al-Rahman reportedly was hit by a CIA drone strike.
In a wide-ranging interview, Brennan credited aggressive U.S. action against militants across the region as the main reason U.S. intelligence has detected no active terror plots before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
The former CIA officer described that as proof that the White House has found the right formula to fight al-Qaida, by pairing U.S. intelligence and counterterrorist forces with host nations from Pakistan to Iraq to Yemen, fighting beside them or sometimes through them. The goal is to keep al-Qaida off balance, unable to replace the seasoned terrorists the U.S. campaign is taking out.
“If they’re worrying about their security … they’re going to have less time to plot and plan,” Brennan said of the militants. “They’re going to be constantly looking over their shoulder or up in the air or wherever, and it really has disrupted their operational cadence and ability to carry out attacks.”
He pointed to the killing of Al-Rahman as an example of how U.S. pressure is degrading the network.
“There’s no longer a management grooming program there. They don’t stay in place long enough,” Brennan said.
U.S. officials believe al-Rahman is dead after intercepting communications between militant groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas reporting to each other that he’d been killed, according to a U.S. official speaking anonymously to discuss matters of intelligence.
Al-Rahman had barely assumed a leadership position since bin Laden’s death pushed his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, into the top spot. Brennan described al-Rahman as a “workaholic” and an “operational mastermind” who kept al-Qaida’s nodes from Yemen to Europe connected.
“Taking him out of commission is huge,” Brennan said. “There’s not another bin Laden out there. I don’t know if there’s another Atiyah Abd al-Rahman out there.”
Brennan said the key to keeping another al-Rahman from rising is to keep constant pressure on all locations where al-Qaida operates, working through host countries to target operatives who “are flowing sometimes back and forth” among Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and other parts of Africa.
Brennan brushed off some of the major crises in those relationships of late, from Pakistan’s strident objections to drone strikes as a continued affront to its sovereignty in the wake of the bin Laden raid, to the revolts across the Mideast that swept from power U.S. counterterror allies in places like Egypt.
He said the relationship with Pakistan is improving.